Even if you are an experienced 3-season backpacker, realize that what you know about common gear, such as stoves, hydration systems, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and tents, will be different from what you need to know for winter conditions.
Know the Risks
Whenever you hike into the backcountry you expose yourself to dangers and risks, such as avalanches caused by snow, mud, or rock slides. There are hunters, falling rocks, falling trees, tree wells, and the risk of slipping off ledges, falling through snow or ice, suffering from hypothermia, snow blindness, frostbite, severe sunburns, stove accidents, etc.
Know the risks when you decide to go winter backpacking. Be prepared and bring what you need. Basic tips for staying warm and knowing what gear to bring are explained below. This is not a comprehensive discussion of winter backpacking or backcountry safety, but it does contain important things that you MUST know before going.
Temperatures and wind speeds: To estimate likely temperatures, use the Mountain Forecast website. It provides expected temperatures and wind speeds at different elevations for well-known peaks:
We are usually camping between 3,000 and 8,000 feet in elevation in the Cascade Mountains (mostly 4,000–6,000ft). In this range of elevation temperatures are usually 20º–40º F. Thus far, no trip has involved temperatures below 5º F. In fact, 5–10º F was probably the lowest, excluding the chill factor for high winds. This means that if you are prepared for 0º F as a lower limit you should be comfortable. The winters in the Pacific Northwest are usually mild and arctic expedition gear is not required.
For the latest information on avalanche risks, please visit the Northwest Avalanche Center website: https://www.nwac.us/
There is always a risk of avalanches in the mountains and we must take precautions. If you have avalanche safety gear (beacon, probe, and shovel), always bring them. For some trips, avalanche gear will be required. There are areas where large trees have been blown down by avalanches and/or the avalanche air blasts indicating that avalanches can strike in places where they don’t often strike. I recommend reading Avalanche Essentials by Bruce Tremper, Mountaineer Books, 2013.
Cell phones and personal locators are not substitutes for Beacons. Beacons must be checked and turned on at the trailhead and left on at all times. Wear your beacon under an outer layer.
We can’t eliminate risks, but we can take precautions, such as:
- Bright Clothing: Wear bright clothes during the winter and hunting seasons
- Traction: Wear appropriate foot traction. Mountain terrain snowshoes are essential for travel in the Cascade Mountains. For some trips, you will need micro-spikes or crampons.
- Snow baskets: Put snow baskets on your trekking poles. This is essential to maintaining balance in fresh deep snow.
- Headlamp: Bring a headlamp and extra batteries. Be aware that some headlamps can get accidentally turned on in your pack, requiring that you keep batteries separate. Ideally, the headlamp should have an IPX8 rating to ensure that it is waterproof.
- Stove maintenance kit: Read stove safety instructions and bring a maintenance kit if you are using a liquid fuel stove. Bring extra fuel and extra fire starters.
- Glacier glasses or goggles. When you expect to be on snowfields for extended periods of time on sunny days, have glacier glasses or goggles (should be category 4 shades, which are too dark for driving).
- Other essential gear: first aid; map, and compass; headlamp; fire starter; water; food; rain protection; clothing layers; shelter; sun protection.
MOUNTAIN TERRAIN SNOWSHOES AND TREKKING POLES WITH SNOW BASKETS
For the Pacific Northwest, only use mountain-terrain showshoes with trekking poles. Do not use low traction flat-terrain or rolling-hill terrain snowshoes with no heel lift bar. More here: https://winterbackpacking.com/snowshoe-tips/. Equip your poles with snow baskets to prevent the poles from sinking too far into soft snow.
More to know here: http://blog.oplopanax.ca/2010/10/how-to-kill-yourself-snowshoeing/
Packing Tips to Avoid Hypothermia
With regard to hypothermia risks and recovery:
- Secure your sleeping bag and extra clothing: Pack your sleeping bag and extra warm camp clothes in a waterproof dry sack or plastic bags, even if your pack is waterproof and even if there is NO clouds or rain in the forecast. If the temperature is near freezing on a sunny day, the snowmelt from the trees in the forest will quickly soak your backpack. Also, gear needs to be protected in case you fall into water.
- Secure your water: As a precaution against wet gear and frozen tubes, avoid pack bladders or internal-pack hydration reservoirs in winter. Be sure that your water is secure and leak-proof. Carry water on the exterior of your winter pack and/or hip belt in solid Nalgene bottles that can double as hot-water bottles at night or in an emergency. Nalgene bottles work better in winter than ultra-lite flexible bottles. In freezing weather, you can turn the bottle upside down while hiking to prevent ice blockage. In weather below 20ºF, a metal thermos or hydro flask is recommended. More about water management here.
- Avoid cotton clothes (including underwear)! Wear synthetic (such as polyester, nylon, or fleece) clothing or wool. Cotton makes you colder and contributes to hypothermia risk because it does not wick moisture away from your skin.
How to Stay Warm in Camp
Once you reach camp it is essential to have temperature-appropriate gear. Carry extra layers for camp. Staying warm while hiking doesn’t require heavy insulation, but once you stop hiking, you need to add layers.
If you follow these recommendations you will likely be warm and comfortable. If you do not, you will be miserable and you will likely be too cold to sleep at night. Here’s what you need for comfort:
- Dedicated base layer: When you reach camp, it is best to remove sweaty clothing and put on a fresh sweat-free base layer—wool socks, thermal leggings, thermal top, fresh shirt, and beanie. If your hiking pants are damp and that’s your only pants (likely), wear your rain pants. This is your camp clothes. The sooner you put them on once you reach camp the better. Sleep in this dedicated base layer. Do not sleep in the sweaty or moist clothing you wore during the day.
- Protect your clothing at night: Keep any clothing you will wear later inside your sleeping bag. This will keep them warm are dry from tent condensation.
- Insulated jacket: Have a warm jacket to wear around camp. 16 ounces or more of 800 down is recommended for comfort in 10º to 32º F temperatures.
- Gloves: Bring at least wo pairs of liner gloves (mainly used while hiking and when finger dexterity is required), mid-weight insulated gloves, and for deep cold or wind, more heavily insulated gloves.
- Cap: Keep your head warm with a balaclava or wool or synthetic beanie or cap.
- Rain-jacket: Have a rain jacket robust enough to provide wind protection and large enough to go over your insulated coat. If high winds are anticipated, bring goggles. You can get goggles that fit over eyeglasses.
- Rain pants: Some people use soft-shell pants for wind protection, which is fine. However, rain pants provide superior wind protection and can be worn around camp. Some hikers use regular hiking pants and, in colder temperatures, add a thermal base layer—such as in temperatures under 30º F, light thermal bottoms (nylon), and in temperatures under 20º F, a mid-weight Capilene bottom. Depending on temperatures, you may need no baselayers on an ascent but on the descent when you are burning less energy, you may require a base layer to stay warm.
People have different needs. Typically, on uphill routes, I hike without thermal base layers, unless the temps are below 30º F or high winds are expected. Once at camp, I add thermal or smart-wool under clothes. You will need to learn from experience what you require, but if you are unsure, bring extra warmth as a backup.
On cold trips in the 5–15º F range, four layers consisting of a base layer top, wool blend top, fleece top, and insulated jacket are usually sufficient for me.
How to Keep Feet and Hands Warm and Dry
If your gloves or boots are too tight, the tightness will reduce your blood circulation and that will prevent your hands and feet from being warm. On long hikes, feet tend to swell, so it is good to wear boots that are slightly larger and if you use a two-sock strategy (thin liner sock, plus heavier outer wool sock), be sure to wear these socks when testing the fit of the boots.
If your feet are cold while hiking it is most likely because your boots are too tight. The restricted circulation is keeping your feet cold.
If you are wearing your boots around camp, keep them unlaced. The looser the boots, the warmer your feet will be. You can also stand on your solid core sleeping pad. When you are outside your tent cooking or socializing, take your solid pad with you and use it as insulation. If you simply stand around directly on the snow without moving, your feet will get cold, even if you are wearing down booties.
You do not need fully waterproof boots in the Cascade Mountains so you do not need vapor-barrier socks to prevent soaking your boots with sweat. However, if your water resistant boots are older than a year, consider adding new waterproofing with a fabric and leather waterproofing product.
Booties: One method to help keep your feet warm at camp is to not rely on the sweaty or wet hiking boots you used during the day. Use fresh layered wool socks and insulated booties instead. Some booties are not well-insulated on the bottom, so in some conditions, it is helpful to add wool insoles or DIY insoles made from insulated reflector bubble wrap. If you leave camp to relieve yourself in the middle of the night, wear your hiking boots and snowshoes if necessary. Insulated booties have very poor traction.
How to prevent frozen boots
The sleeping bag method: Follow these steps to prevent your boots from freezing at camp:
- While you are still wearing your boots boil a liter of water and put the hot water in a Nalgene bottle.
- Make sure the Nalgene bottle lid is tight and place the bottle inside the bottom of your sleeping bag. If you are unable to seriously tighten the bottle, keep it in a dry-sack or plastic bag as a precaution to protect your sleeping bag. Re-tighten the bottle after 10–15 minutes (know that it will be hard to open in the morning).
- Then place boots in a waterproof stuff sack or plastic bag and place the bag inside the foot of your sleeping bag. Be aware that in freezing weather your boots may be wet from snowmelt or sweat. This means that if you remove the boots from the warmth of your feet, the boots can freeze solid quickly. To prevent this, remove the boots and place them directly in the sleeping bag with the hot water bottle.
The sleeping bag method will prevent your boots from freezing and that means you can put them on at any time you need them without the delay of having to warm them up.
Boots can freeze in shapes that do not easily fit your feet. If the boots are already frozen, do NOT put them in your sleeping bag without a hot water bottle because your feet will be cold all night. Do not attempt to thaw frozen boots with a stove or direct flame because the synthetic materials will melt almost instantly before the boot thaws. Once frozen, you must either force your feet into the cold boots in the morning or put the boots in the sleeping bag with a hot water bottle while you make breakfast and break camp. Usually, they will soften up by the time you finish breaking camp and need to put them back on.
The importance of extra gloves
You need light gloves while hiking and more insulated gloves or mittens while in camp or in high winds. For extra warmth, use glove liners with your camp gloves/mittens. A 3-glove strategy is recommended because the light-weight hiking gloves will often get wet from sweat or snow that melts on contact with body warmth. The wetness makes the gloves useless and even dangerous. The gloves will not likely dry overnight, especially in December when daylight hours are short and cloudy, so a second pair of gloves are needed. That is, you need at least 2 pairs of liner gloves for when you are hiking. Warmer insulated gloves/mittens are great in camp but too hot for hiking, so extra liner gloves are back up as well as around camp and as liners that can be worn with heavier gloves. Your third pair of gloves can be either mid-weight or heavy-weight depending on weather conditions.
Important Sleeping Bag and Mattress Requirements
For safety and comfort, a sleeping bag system that is rated 10–20 degrees warmer than the expected temperature is recommended. Think of your sleeping bag’s rating as a survival rating, not the comfort rating. That is, a “0º F” bag is only comfortable in 10–15º F weather. The Pacific Northwest winters are mild and most hikers use sleeping bags rated 15–10º for most trips. If you are buying a sleeping bags for shoulder season or winter season use, bags rated 15º are recommended for shoulder seasons and 0º F for winter. Know your gear limits!
Sleeping bags don’t generate heat, they capture the heat you generate. If you lose your core warmth and get in a sleeping bag, you will be uncomfortable and shivering. So don’t lose your warmth, but if you do, have the capability to make a hot water bottle to put in the sleeping bag with you. This is something I always plan to do anyway because it just makes sleeping more comfortable.
More about sleeping bags and systems here.
No sleeping bag will keep you comfortably warm when sleeping on snow unless it has a mattress under it. The rating on your sleeping bag is based on having a mattress under the bag and the person wearing a base layer of clothing.
When sleeping on snow or ice, you MUST have an air-mattress under your sleeping bag regardless of the rating of your sleeping bag. Two mattresses (an air mattress and a foam mattress) are recommended. Air mattresses are the primary protection from the cold ground. Air mattresses can fail, so an additional foam mattress should be regarded as a standard practice to both protect your air mattress and add additional R-value. The “R-Value” is a measure of the resistance a material has to heat flow.
One foam mattress will only provide around 1–3 R-value. For snow or ice, you need a sleeping system that provides a 5+ R-value or better under your sleeping bag. It needs to be either:
foam + foam
foam + air
If your R-value is in the 5–7 range and you have a warm sleeping bag you will feel no cold from the snow/ice below. You can check online to find the R-values for different mattresses.
Tip: Some people believe that better R-value comes from putting the foam on top of the air mattress. For safety always put the foam under the air mattress to help prevent air-mattress punctures. Clip together any loose sharp buckles on your pack and arrange your gear so that nothing will puncture your air mattress.
Bonus tip: To fit your larger winter sleeping bag into your pack, turn the bag inside out. This will release the air faster when compressing it.
To keep your head warm and protected from wind, pack goggles, and a buff or balaclava to protect your face, especially if high winds are in the forecast. Often the wind speed is much higher in the mountains. Learn more about wind here: https://winterbackpacking.com/preparing-for-winter-wind/
Use UV snow (ski) goggles or glacier glasses (must be rated category 4) to protect your eyes from sun glare and snow blindness. Glacier glasses and UV protection are especially important in the springtime and on routes with large snowfields such as Camp Muir and Mount Adams. Without UV protection severe burns will occur on exposed skin including your lips and the underside of your nose! In milder temperatures, a buff provides some extra warmth and wind protection. Hooded fishing shirts and light balaclavas are also good for UV protection.
Stoves and Water Management
Essential winter gear:
- Stove (for safety reasons everyone must have their own stove)
- Multiple fire starters (lighter, matches, or flints)
- Nalgene bottle (leak proof)
- Pot large enough for melting snow
- Stove repair kit (if you use liquid fuel stove)
- Fuel (more than you expect to use)
Stoves are essential because we don’t build camp fires and usually camp in alpine zones where campfires are prohibited because organic matter (wood) is too scarce to burn.
Stoves are foremost essential for your winter water supply. Winter gear is heavy. To reduce pack weight, carry only the water you require to reach camp, plus a small amount to use as starter fluid when melting snow.
Never allow water to freeze in your water bottles. If it is likely the water will freeze before you can drink it, poor it out to maintain the use of the bottle.
In deep cold weather (below 20º F), bring a thermos or metal flask filled with hot water. This hot water will cool down in the course of the day but remain fluid until camp. If you can, keep half a cup of liquid water for starting a boil for melting snow (to prevent burning the pot). Start each day boiling water to put in the flask. For deep cold, only put enough water in regular Nalgene bottles that you can consume before it freezes. More on water management here: https://winterbackpacking.com/how-to-keep-your-water-from-freezing/
If you’re an ultralight backpacker who camps without a stove or hot food, adopt a winter exception and bring a reliable stove for melting snow, creating hot water bottles, and warming meals. Backup no-cook meals are also recommended.
Canister fuel stoves will work in most Pacific Northwest conditions, but liquid fuel stoves perform better in colder and windy conditions and higher elevations. Stove windscreens are not safe on canister stoves. If you use a canister stove, it is best to use one designed for cold weather conditions. If you use a liquid fuel stove, do not light it in or near a tent because the large primer flame will instantly melt the tent or vestibule. Carry multiple fire-starting tools (both matches and small cheap lighters can fail in cold snowy conditions).
If you use a liquid fuel stove always bring a stove repair kit or at least the main wrench and shaker needle. Stoves are critical survival and comfort tools in freezing conditions because they can supply water from melted snow, nighttime warmth from hot water bottles, and hot meals.
Multiple stoves and extra fuel are necessary because someone’s stove may fail. We want backups. So each person must bring a stove.
Leave No Trace
Always practice “leave no trace” ethics. Leave nothing in the wilderness—no cherry pits, no sunflower seed shells, no orange peels, no toilet paper, no detergents, no campfire scares, nothing. Learn more here.
Leave what you find, keep wildlife wild, and be considerate of other visitors.
DON’T POOP IN THE SNOW
You don’t need a trowel when snow camping, but not because you have a snow shovel. Snow melts, so what you burry isn’t buried at the end of the season. The best way to care about streams and the environment is to pack it out. Use a Wag Bag or Biffy Bag. These products turn liquids into solids rapidly and seal up securely.
Tip: If you don’t like leaving your tent at night you can carry an extra bottle to pee in. Winter nights are long, so I always plan to go out at night and hopefully see some stars too.
Bonus tip: Be aware that there is not a lot of toilet paper in Biffy Bag or Wag Bag packages, so carry some extra.
Gear for Your Car
Drivers should carry tire chains or cable traction for icy roads and a saw to clear downed limbs blocking the road.
Don’t forget your trail pass.
Tip: Attach your car keys to the inside of your pack lid to help prevent loss on the trail or use a pocket with a zipper to secure them.
Trailhead theft and break-in tips: Remove everything of value from your car. Leave the glovebox door open to show no items of value. Remove any paperwork from the car such as envelopes (thieves are looking for credit cards).
Tip: You will want extra shoes, socks, and a shirt in a bag after the hike for the ride home. To prevent car break-ins, consider keeping these in an ordinary paper grocery bag and spreading them out in the car seat with the bag folded up. Paper grocery bags have a low-perceived value and you want thieves to see that there is nothing of value. Consider leaving the doors unlocked like owners of convertibles.
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